Saturday, July 27, 2019

How Much (Should) a New Committee Member Know?

A recent federal court decision should remind us all of the importance of plan committee education.

The case involved a suit by participants in the SunTrust 401(k) plan (see Is Fiduciary Responsibility Retroactive?) that challenged the initial selection of, and subsequent acquiescence with, an ostensibly imprudent plan investment menu. The court’s decision focused on one aspect of the case: the liability of “new” plan committee members for actions that predated their involvement on the committee, but continued after their involvement. The court, in a decision that will likely be viewed favorably by new committee members, excluded them from liability for committee moves that predated their participation, at least to the extent they lack “actual knowledge” of imprudence.

Along the way to that determination, Judge Orinda D. Evans of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia incorporated the testimony of those new committee members as to the training/information they received as they joined. While it may reflect their recollection more than the reality, they convey[1] a very strong sense of being handed reading materials, and left to their own devices to fill in the blanks.

The deposition questions were doubtless focused on the particular aspect of fund selection, and perhaps dealt with nothing beyond that. Indeed, several of the committee members did recount both an exposure to the plan document itself and some awareness of the importance of their role as a plan fiduciary.

As a baseline, I have long maintained that every plan committee member needs to know that:

You are an ERISA fiduciary.

Even if you consider yourself to be a small and relatively silent member of the committee, you direct and influence retirement plan money, and fiduciary status is based on one’s responsibilities with the plan, not a title. Simply stated, if you (or the committee you are part of) control the plan’s assets (such as choosing the investment options or choosing the firm that chooses those options), you are a fiduciary to the extent of that discretion or control.

You are responsible for the actions of other plan fiduciaries.

All fiduciaries have potential liability for the actions of their co-fiduciaries. For example, the Department of Labor notes that if a fiduciary knowingly participates in another fiduciary’s breach of responsibility, conceals the breach, or does not act to correct it, that fiduciary is liable as well. So, it’s a good idea to know who your co-fiduciaries are – and to keep an eye on what they do, and are permitted to do.

As an ERISA fiduciary, your liability is personal.

If they didn’t hear this message out the outset, the onset of litigation surely brought this reality home to the committee members. A committee member may be required to restore any losses to the plan or to restore any profits gained through improper use of plan assets. Now, you can obtain insurance to protect against that personal liability – but that’s probably not the fiduciary liability insurance you may already have in place, or the fidelity bond that is often carried to protect the plan against loss resulting from fraudulent or dishonest acts of those covered by the bond. If you’re not sure what you have, find out. Today.

The plan’s investment policy matters.

Note that I didn’t say the plan’s investment policy statement. The law (ERISA) doesn’t require that you have a written investment policy statement, but that same law does expect that the plan’s investments will be monitored as though one was in writing. Indeed, the vast majority of plans do have a written IPS – more than 90%, according to the Plan Sponsor Council of America’s 61st Annual Survey of Profit Sharing and 401(k) Plans.

More than that, generally speaking, you should find it easier to conduct the plan’s investment business in accordance with a set of established, prudent standards if those standards are in writing, and not crafted at a point in time when you are desperately trying to make sense of the markets. In sum, you want an IPS in place before you need an IPS in place.

And a suggestion for you: have a formal “on-boarding” process for plan committee members.

Every plan, and every plan committee is unique. But the responsibility, and the prudent expert standard to which those responsibilities must be held applies uniformly – and it has been called “the highest known to the law.” In forming and conducting the committee it’s imperative not only that the members be selected wisely, but that they be informed and engaged so that they can adequately and fully discharge those responsibilities.

One recent court decision (Wildman v. Am. Century Servs.) in favor of the plan committee defendants explains that the committee met regularly three times a year, and had “special meetings if something arose that needed to be discussed before the regularly scheduled meetings.” Moreover, the defendants testified that those meetings “were productive and lasted as long as was needed to fully address each issue on the agenda. On average, the meetings lasted an hour to an hour and a half.”

The plan provided “training and information about their fiduciary duties, including a ‘Fiduciary Toolkit,’ which outlined their duties as fiduciaries, as well as a summary plan document, and articles regarding fiduciary duties in general.” That kit included a copy of the current Investment Policy Statement, and the court noted that “the Committee members read these materials and took their responsibilities as fiduciaries seriously.”

Arguably the personal interests of the new plan committee members in the SunTrust case were, at least at this stage, “well-served” by their lack of education (more specifically, the lack of “actual knowledge”) regarding the background of the decisions made prior to their appointment. However, this is only one set of issues, and they may yet be held to account for their subsequent affirmation (be it active or passive) in the continuance of those decisions.

And that’s when ignorance of your duties as a plan fiduciary can be really expensive.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

1. Defendant Jerome Lienhard stated in his deposition that he received binders describing the funds in the Plan “presumably” containing documents describing fiduciary standards, that he spoke with Defendants Donna Lange and Ken Houghton about being a Benefits Plan Committee member and, upon becoming a member of the Benefits Plan Committee in August of 2006, familiarized himself with the Plan document. However, he did not recall taking action to determine whether previous breaches of fiduciary responsibility had been committed.

Defendant Christopher Shults said that he received training regarding the funds in the Plan when he became a Benefits Plan Committee member, and that he was “directed… to meet with an investment consultant representative "to become more educated about the investment decisions made by the Benefits Plan Committee.” However, he did not "remember any of the details of specificity around what we discussed" and he did not recall discussing previous investment decisions by the Benefits Plan Committee with the representative. Nor did he recall learning about selection decisions made by the Benefits Plan Committee prior to his becoming a member.

Defendant Mimi Breeden remembered that she “would have talked to subject matter experts and [her] staff and others to come up to speed on what the committee’s work was” and “what key priorities were,” that she “probably” had knowledge of the history of the Plan before 1997 but could not recall it or any information about the 1996 selection of Affiliated Funds, and that she could not recall whether she ever knew about the initial selection of Plan funds in 1996.

Defendant Mary Steele was sure she had read the Plan document at some point while a member of the Benefits Plan Committee and that Defendant Donna Lange briefed her regarding her fiduciary responsibilities as a Benefits Plan Committee member and “the most important things that [she] need[ed] to know about the committee,” and that while she did not remember how the SunTrust proprietary funds first came to be offered in the Plan, but that the 1996 change in the Plan from common trust funds to mutual funds “sound[ed] familiar.”

Defendant Thomas Kuntz did not recall whether he received any training regarding his duties as a Benefits Plan Committee member or whether he reviewed prior meeting minutes, though he recalled that the Benefits Plan Committee, “[a] s a matter of course,” “reviewed all the funds in the plan ... for appropriateness.” In a disposition he explained that he believed the proprietary funds in the Plan were appropriately included because “[t]hey looked to be reasonable choices based on assessments that [he] might have had at the time,” though he did not recall what those assessments were.

Defendant Donna Lange said that she was not aware of the process used in initially selecting the Affiliated Funds in 1996, just that “the approved funds were in place when [she] arrived.” As for that 1996 fund selection, Lange went on to say that she did not "recall studying this other than being aware “this is the plan, this is what we started with.” She did state, however, that she knew the Plan was only using proprietary funds when she arrived.

Defendant Aleem Gillani stated in his deposition that he does not recall ever being briefed or “brought up to speed” on the Benefits Plan Committee's decisions prior to becoming a member, and that he had no knowledge of them when appointed to the Benefits Plan Committee.

Finally, Defendant William H. Rogers, Jr. stated in his deposition that he has no knowledge of the initial Affiliated Funds selection in 1996, 1999, and 2001.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

A Giant Leap for Mankind…

While I am sure there was a period in my youth when I wanted to be a fireman, a cowboy, or maybe even a professional athlete, my earliest memories are of wanting to be an astronaut.

Never mind that my odds of becoming a professional athlete were, even then, considerably better than those of joining the nation’s elite group of astronauts. It was evident even to me early on that I lacked the athletic acumen for a career in sports – but it took years for me to appreciate what would have been required for me to satisfy NASA’s requirements (and be able to rationalize that the “real” reason was that I was too tall).

It was a magical time for our nation’s space program. There was a plan, three separate programs (Mercury, Gemini and Apollo) to help us get there, and a vision – as President John F. Kennedy said in May 1961 – of “achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” There was also a sense of national urgency (the so-called “Space Race” with the Soviets, which was a lot less scary than the arms race), and, while throughout its life the program was remarkably bereft of injury, the tragedy of the February 1967 fire on Apollo 1 that took the lives of Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee reminded us of the stakes involved.

And then, after years of watching Americans enter space, circle the planet, exit their craft while circling the planet (at unimaginable speeds), and then leave Earth’s orbit to touch the lunar sky, I can still remember the grainy black-and-white images of Neil Armstrong’s “one small step for man” flickering across the screen of my family’s small black-and-white television (replete with its aluminum foil-festooned rabbit ears) on that Sunday evening in 1969. An experience that was, in some form or fashion, replicated around the world that special July evening 50 years ago in a rare planetary unanimity of experience as we got that report of a successful landing at “Tranquility Base.”

Of course, it wasn’t all about developing “Tang,” magical space walks, and those incredible images of our astronauts bounding across the lunar landscape. It was about knowing where we wanted to be; putting together a detailed, comprehensive plan to get there; having any number of contingencies and backups “just in case”; the tenacity, dedication, and intellect to work around the inevitable problems that arise that you didn’t anticipate with those contingency plans (just watch Apollo 13); and – perhaps the most critical element in the successful completion of any project – a deadline.

It doesn’t take much imagination to draw a correlation between the planning for a landing on the moon and a successful arrival in retirement (OK, so maybe it takes a little imagination). It requires a notion of what constitutes a successful arrival, an idea of the steps that will be required to get there, the tenacity and ingenuity to deal with the inevitable bumps along the way – and the specificity of a date certain to give some structure to those plans.

Students of history know that one of the contingency plans for the Apollo 11 mission was a presidential statement if those astronauts had crashed (they got pretty low on fuel before landing), or if they hadn’t been able to return to Earth (some engineer actually forgot to put a handle on the outside of the lunar module door – and if they hadn’t noticed that and left the door open while they were on the surface, they might not have been able to get back inside the LEM). Fortunately, those contingencies are now simply interesting historical anecdotes. Still, it’s worth recalling that the ultimate mission was not only to get men to  the moon, but to return them safely home.

As we ponder the accomplishments and planning that helped our nation put men on the moon, it’s worth remembering that our “mission” is not only to get tomorrow’s retirees safely to retirement, to take those “small steps” along the way – but ultimately to position them and their finances to carry them safely through  retirement… to their “tranquility base.”

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, July 13, 2019

The Biggest Retirement Assumption

There have been many different solutions put forth over the years to remedy the nation’s retirement ills, but regardless of your perception of the coming crisis (including those who believe such notions are overblown), there is a constant in every estimation of our retirement future.[1]

Yes, I’m talking about Social Security. Indeed, we rely on the inevitability of those benefits with a certainty generally accorded only to death and taxes (both of which play a significant role in Social Security eligibility and claiming, as it turns out).

And yet, for all its centrality in planning, Social Security faces its own funding crisis, or is projected to, according to the trustees of the program, in a report formally titled, “The 2019 Annual Report of the Board of Trustees of the Federal Old-Age and Survivors Insurance and Federal Disability Insurance Trust Funds. ” That the program will run short of funds is no secret, with the only variable being at what exact point in the future will benefits have to be reduced (it changes modestly from year to year, depending on a couple of variables).

Not only is the funding crisis well-known, the aforementioned trustees’ report acknowledges, and routinely outlines a “broad continuum of policy options that would close or reduce Social Security's long-term financing shortfall,” along with cost estimates.

Years back, when the future crisis was no less real, but somewhat less large, I had the opportunity to hear former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan speak on the subject of “fixing” Social Security. Greenspan, who had led a commission in the early 1980s charged with solving was then a more immediate crisis of the program (believe it or not), outlined the two core elements of any serious attempt to resolve the funding shortfall:
  • increasing funding (generally either by raising the withholding rates or the compensation level to which they are applied, or both); and
  • reducing benefits (by raising the claiming age) or what’s euphemistically referred to as “means testing,” which effectively reduces the benefits to higher income recipients. 
So, the answer to the problem is, as the actuaries remind us, “just math,” and we needn’t choose one solution or the other; rather, some combination – as it was in 1983 – is the approach that seems the most likely outcome.

Except, of course, the answer isn’t “just” math, it’s money. And fixing it – while not hard to figure out – will cost money that those who would make that call would “rather” spend on other things. It’s also fraught – as it was in the 1980s – with political hot buttons. Social Security has long been considered a “third rail” of American politics, and politicians have been burned for merely suggesting the need for change, much less putting forth specific proposals. 

That said, if there’s any aspect of this that is as widely known as the fact that there is a looming financial shortfall, it’s that the longer we put off taking steps to do so, the more difficult – the more expensive – it will be.

Yes, Social Security is most certainly the biggest retirement assumption – by individuals, retirement planners, and legislators alike. Today as we stand at the brink of the biggest retirement reform legislation in a decade – as we consider a growing number of state retirement savings mandates, and contemplate a federal expansion – we also know that as valuable, even essential, as those steps might be in broadening and deepening the success of the private retirement system – they won’t be “enough” if we don’t shore up the baseline foundation upon which the nation’s retirement security is currently predicated.

It’s time, in short, for an adult conversation about – and some adult action – to make sure that that most fundamental of retirement planning assumptions remains something we can count on.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD
1. A notable exception is the Employee Benefit Research Institute's Jack VanDerhei, who routinely includes an assessment of the impact of the projected reductions in Social Security benefits if the current funding status remains unchanged. In a March 2019 Issue Brief, he notes that "when pro rata reductions to Social Security retirement benefits are assumed to begin in 2034, the aggregate retirement deficit increases by 6 percent to $4.06 trillion."

Saturday, July 06, 2019

5 Fiduciary Fundamentals: A Founding Fathers Perspective

This week we’ll commemorate Independence Day – but with all of freedom’s lessons, there are certain things that plan committees (still) have in common with the Second Continental Congress.

Certainly anyone who has ever found their grand idea shackled to the deliberations of a committee, or who has had to kowtow to the sensibilities of a recalcitrant compliance department, can empathize with the process that produced the Declaration of Independence we commemorate this week.

Consider these similarities:

Committee members should understand their obligations – and the risks.

Those that gathered in Philadelphia that summer of 1776 came from all walks of life, but it seems fair to say that most had something to lose. True, many were merchants (some wealthy, including President of Congress John Hancock) already chafing under the tax burdens imposed by British rule, and perhaps they could see a day when their actions would (eventually) accrue to their economic benefit. Still, they could hardly have undertaken that declaration of independence without a very real concern that in so doing they might well have signed their death warrants.

It’s not quite that serious for plan fiduciaries. However, as ERISA fiduciaries, they are personally liable, and may be required to restore any losses to the plan or to restore any profits gained through improper use of plan assets. Moreover, fiduciaries have potential liability for the actions of their co-fiduciaries. So, it’s a good idea to know who your co-fiduciaries are – and to keep an eye on what they do, and are permitted to do.

Indeed, plan fiduciaries would be well advised to bear in mind something that Ben Franklin is said to have remarked during the deliberations in Philadelphia: “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”

Money can be a sticking point.

Before it declared independence, the Second Continental Congress created the Continental Army, named a Commander-in-Chief (George Washington), and authorized the first printing of American money ($1 million in bills of credit). Indeed in the months (and years) that followed, the costs of (and means of funding) that army would be a constant source of contention between the Congress and the leaders of the Continental Army, even after the fighting on the battlefields was over.

The costs of running a retirement plan are varied, and these days many are borne – directly or indirectly – by the plan and participants themselves. But if the American Revolution was fought over “taxation without representation,” ERISA charges plan fiduciaries with an unequivocal obligation to ensure that every action taken, every service or service provider enlisted, be done for the exclusive benefit of retirement plan participants and their beneficiaries.

It’s not all about money, of course. But – as the Labor Department has noted, and as the plaintiffs’ bar clearly knows – fees and expenses paid by the plan can have an impact on retirement savings and security. Plan fiduciaries should be no less attentive.

It can be hard to break with the status quo.

By the time the Second Continental Congress convened, the “shot heard round the world” at Lexington and Concord was more than a year old, but many of the representatives there still held out hope for some kind of peaceful reconciliation, even as they authorized an army and put George Washington at its helm. Little wonder that, even in the midst of hostilities, there was a strong inclination on the part of several key individuals to put things back the way they had been, to patch them over, rather than to take on what was then the world’s most accomplished military force.

As human beings we are largely predisposed to leaving things the way they are, rather than making abrupt and dramatic change. Whether this “inertia” comes from a fear of the unknown, a certain laziness about the extra work that might be required, or a sense that advocating change suggests an admission that there was something “wrong” before, it seems fair to say that plan sponsors are, in the absence of a compelling reason for change, inclined instead to rationalize staying put.

As a consequence, you often see new fund options added, while old and unsatisfactory funds linger on the plan menu, a general reluctance to undertake an evaluation of long-standing providers in the absence of severe service issues, and an overall inertia when it comes to adopting potentially disruptive plan features like automatic enrollment or deferral acceleration.

While many of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were restricted by the entities that appointed them in terms of how they could vote on the issues presented, plan fiduciaries can’t defer that responsibility to others (see 5 Things Your Plan Committee Members Need to Know). Rather, their decisions are bound by an obligation that those decisions be made solely in the best interests of plan participants and their beneficiaries – regardless of any other organizational or personal obligations they may have outside their committee role.

It’s important to put it in writing.

While the Declaration of Independence technically had no legal effect, its impact not only on the establishment of the United States, but as a social and political inspiration for many throughout the world since is unquestioned, and perhaps unprecedented. Putting that declaration – and the sentiments behind it – in writing gave it a force and influence far beyond its original purpose.

As for plan fiduciaries, there is an old ERISA adage that says, “prudence is process.” However, an updated version of that adage might be “prudence is process – but only if you can prove it.” To that end, a written record of the activities of plan committee(s) is an essential ingredient in validating not only the results, but also the thought process behind those deliberations. More significantly, those minutes can provide committee members – both past and future – with a sense of the environment at the time decisions were made, the alternatives presented and the rationale offered for each, as well as what those decisions were.

They also can be an invaluable tool in reassessing those decisions at the appropriate time(s) in the future and making adjustments as warranted – properly documented, of course.

Big change takes time – and effort.

Congress may have declared independence that July, but the reality took considerably more time and effort. Though before the year was out, Washington’s troops would cross the Delaware under unimaginable conditions and win a stirring victory at Trenton, on their way to a series of impressive, but largely unappreciated victories against the British army in New Jersey – but less than a year later Washington’s troops would winter at Valley Forge.

Independence may have been declared in 1776, but it was not won until the victory in Yorktown, Virginia in 1781, and not official for two years more.

We do, of course, have much to be thankful for this Independence Day; for those who had the courage to stand up for the principles and ideals on which this nation was founded, for those who were willing then to take up arms to defend those principles and ideals against overwhelming odds, and those who continue to do so to this day.

Plan fiduciaries who are doing their duty and fulfilling their obligations aren’t exactly putting their lives on the line - but in their own special way(s), they’re working to help assure American worker retirement freedoms – their financial independence – every day.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD